Your UCLA Bruins’ final regular season home game will be their toughest test of the season.
We know, we know: This team had some pretty difficult tests, trying to beat their own tendencies (like losing conference road games and getting destroyed by USC), but this Stanford squad? They’re a totally different animal.
Fitting that this is how the season ends, too. Because a win could elevate UCLA to an entirely different level; after beating a decent USC squad, the Bruins could roll into the Rose Bowl and beat the eighth-best team in the nation, a squad that, just last week, obliterated Oregon’s title hopes in Eugene.
So what’s so special about this Stanford team?
Clearly, it’s the Cardinal defense that makes the task of beating Stanford a tall one. Essentially, this Stanford team has the best in the Pac-12 and whose defense is on the level of a top-tier SEC squad.
They’re first in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game, a whole five yards per game less (at 71) than Alabama (76), and they’ve got the best front seven in the Pac-12, earning four sacks a contest to go along with a vaunted rushing defense (earning four per game, second-best in the nation only to Arizona State).
And that won’t bode well for these UCLA Bruins, which have relied on an elite ground game led by Johnathan Franklin. And the last time the Bruins played an elite defense against the run, they lost 27-20 (to Oregon State).
This Stanford team has a weakness though, and that weakness was displayed against the Arizona Wildcats, in which the Matt Scott-led ‘Cats destroyed the Stanford defense to the tune of 48 points.
And it was done through the air, on quick passes to the flat and by screening this Cardinal to death. The gameplan was to get the ball out of Matt Scott’s hands and into the air as quick as possible, and there’s a reason Scott threw 69 times that game.
This Stanford secondary can be flighty, make no mistake. It’s how Arizona beat the Cardinal and it’s why it’s the game is an outlier defensively for Stanford.
No team passes as well as Arizona did; sure, USC has had a solid passing game, but that relied on giving Matt Barkley time to sit in the pocket, something Stanford won’t allow. Arizona, much like UCLA, gets the pass out as quick as possible to offset the front seven’s aggressiveness in the trenches.
But Arizona lost that game; for all the credit we’ve given them for tearing up Stanford’s defense, they came out with a loss.
And that’s expected, because Stanford’s well-coached enough to take advantage of Arizona’s porous defense and get the most out of a shaky-at-best Stanford offense.
Arizona’s easily one of the worst defensive teams in the nation, and it’s why the Cardinal were able to come away with a win.
Stanford’s offense can’t hang in a shoot-out against a competent defense. Hell, Stanford’s offense can barelyscore in any kind of game against a competent defense.
We’re sure Kevin Hogan is an upgrade over the oft-maligned Josh Nunes, and statistically, it seems like he is, completing over 70 percent of his passes and throwing six touchdowns to three picks in the last three games.
Of course, the passing game is still marginal in this Stanford offense and with Hogan, Stanford is averaging 216 yards a contest through the air.
What’ll be tougher to defend for UCLA will be the ground game, and these Bruins haven’t done terribly against the run.
Stanford, mind you, still has Stepfan Taylor, and though he hasn’t been as fantastic as some of the best running backs in the Pac-12, he’s still competent. Dude averages 111 yards a contest, albeit with a 4.7 yards-per-carry average.
But he won’t be worth wetting our pants over.
In essence, UCLA has to be ready to adjust the ground game if the traditional run-between-the-tackles approach isn’t working, so as to throw a bevy of quick screens and get Johnathan Franklin against those Stanford defensive backs by throwing to him in the flat and getting him in open space.
This Stanford team will be difficult to beat and if UCLA can come away with 30 points, it’ll be tough to argue that these Bruins and their offense haven’t reached elite status yet.
A win, and it’s no longer “crazy” to think UCLA is Rose Bowl-bound.